Don’t Worry, Mashley’s Here

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Maria (right) and Ashley

This last Sunday, my daughter Maria went to Mass with our family at a parish connected to the Seminary. After Mass, a number of seminarians who are fans of the music of Ashley and Maria came up to her and shared their appreciation. She was delighted, and therefore I was delighted that she was delighted.

One of the seminarians told Maria that the guys in the Seminary really needed a good song to help them get through the upcoming hardships of their exams.

Well, that’s all it took. She was on a mission.

As soon as we got in the car, Maria called Ashley and started to plan what song to cover for the seminarians. She asked me to drive her to straight to Ashley’s house. I dropped her off and in 35 minutes they had chosen a song, practiced it and recorded it. It bears their signature staid demeanor (in marvelous juxtaposition to the words), with birds singing in the background and a car whizzing by.

One of the seminarians told me to tell them: “The song reminded us of an oasis in the midst of life’s frenetic pace; to just stop everything and waste some time singing on a Sunday afternoon. Just because.”

Exactly.

Here it is:

 

Twenty One Silence

[re-post from March 2016]

Those of you who read my blog with any consistency know well that I share my daughters’ affection for the group, Twenty One Pilots. I dig their sound, energy and vibe, but even more their clean and meaningful lyrics. I wish I could find a way to communicate to them my admiration for their work. I was thrilled to see on Word on Fire philosophy professor Father Damian Ference make these comments about them:

What I am saying is that Twenty One Pilots has offered a masterful incarnation of the culture of encounter. They meet their audience where they are, as they are, and they let them know that they “get them.” Once their audience trusts them, then they can slowly challenge them to consider a new way of seeing, a new way of living, and a new way of being. Is it evangelization? Maybe not exactly, but it is encounter, which is a prerequisite for authentic evangelization. They’ve accomplished the important work of preparing the soil for seeds to be sown, which isn’t easy. And, if by the end of the night, Twenty One Pilots can get some young people to say “Hello” to God for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, well, that’s better than most.

Among their songs, I have a number I really love and have nearly memorized. Among these is Car Radio, which is about abandoning the culture of distraction and being confronted by the frightful vulnerability found in stark silence. The lyrics are fabulous. I have given several retreats on the value of silence over the last twenty years, and have said far more about silence than anyone should. I’ve found again and again that people benefit more from those silent retreats about silence than any other I have given. Precisely for the reasons stated in this song. The music video for Car Radio, in true Twenty One Pilots form, is off-beat schizo-pop. It offers a wild visual narrative of the painful process of being stripped, shaved, of all those external “noises” that distract us from facing our inner struggles, preventing us from having to face head-on life’s most profound meaning-questions.

A man I know, who is now a bishop, said to me back in the 1980’s when I took a philosophy course from him:

There are nights when I feel the pain of loneliness to such a degree that I feel almost desperate. I used to immediately distract myself with TV or a phone call, or head out to the drug store to buy chips. But now I just sit in the chapel in my rectory and let it burn through me, in the silence, with tears, and ask Jesus to make me a better priest. Silence is the only way I can allow what is deep within me to surface out into God’s presence. And it’s a taste of hell.

I couldn’t help but think of this segment of the Creed:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell…

Okay, let me get to the song and video. I’ll preface it with a gritty quote from Henri Nouwen that I’ve used to open many of the silent retreats I’ve given.

As soon as we are alone in silence, inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distractions manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.

I ponder of something great
My lungs will fill and then deflate
They fill with fire, exhale desire
I know it’s dire my time today

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

Sometimes quiet is violent
I find it hard to hide it
My pride is no longer inside
It’s on my sleeve
My skin will scream reminding me of
Who I killed inside my dream
I hate this car that I’m driving
There’s no hiding for me
I’m forced to deal with what I feel
There is no distraction to mask what is real
I could pull the steering wheel

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

I ponder of something terrifying
‘Cause this time there’s no sound to hide behind
I find over the course of our human existence
One thing consists of consistence
And it’s that we’re all battling fear
Oh dear, I don’t know if we know why we’re here
Oh my, too deep, please stop thinking
I liked it better when my car had sound

There are things we can do
But from the things that work there are only two
And from the two that we choose to do
Peace will win and fear will lose
It is faith and there’s sleep
We need to pick one please because
Faith is to be awake
And to be awake is for us to think
And for us to think is to be alive
And I will try with every rhyme
To come across like I am dying
To let you know you need to try to think

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit in silence
And now I just sit

I ponder of something great
My lungs will fill and then deflate
They fill with fire, exhale desire
I know it’s dire my time today

I have these thoughts, so often I ought
To replace that slot with what I once bought
‘Cause somebody stole my car radio
And now I just sit in silence

Fall Away

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Maria

[Re-post from February 2016. Extremely busy days for me, so re-posts help. Oh, but did I mention that March 2, 2017 I’ll see Twenty One Pilots live, in concert, in New Orleans? #frenziedjoy]

God does not want to impose the good, but wants free beings. There is a certain usefulness to temptation. No one but God knows what our soul has received from him, not even we ourselves. But temptation reveals it in order to teach us to know ourselves, and in this way we discover our evil inclinations and are obliged to give thanks for the goods that temptation has revealed to us. — Catechism #2847

My daughter Maria introduced me to the group Twenty One Pilots in 2015 and I have (figuratively) joined their fan club. I will be posting more on them soon. Recently Maria wrote a brief reflection for school on a song of theirs, and I found her reflection so excellent I asked if I could publish it here. She graciously agreed.

Here was the prompt she received in class:

For this activity, you will be analyzing a song, poem, article, short story, or character in a book. Your typed response will answer the general question, “How does these lyrics or story promote authentic human freedom?”  You will need to attach the lyrics of the song, the article, the story, or some type of description of what you chose to analyze to the assignment (If you do a song or another media source you may attach the youtube clip as well).  Your response must be at least 200 words.  Pay careful attention to clarity of writing and grammar.

Here was her answer:

The song “Fall Away” by twenty one pilots discusses authentic human freedom in an obscure but brutally honest way. Tyler Joseph, the writer of the song, divulges his struggle of concealing who he really is and talks about his fear of “falling away” from the truth and, ultimately, God.

I believe that the message Joseph is trying to convey is that he strives to live the life he is supposed to live, but many self-doubts hinder his ability to do so. The line “but I don’t want your way, I want mine” is Joseph addressing God, saying that he wants to create his own path instead of taking God’s path of true happiness. Another line, “I can feel the pull begin/feel my conscience wearing thin,” expresses his struggle to retain his original beliefs and morals as the outside world pulls him away, giving him a false idea of what freedom is.

While this song does not exhibit an explicit representation of authentic human freedom, it does describe the difficulty many face to use their freedom how they ought to. In our tainted, confused world today, freedom is generally defined as the right to do or say whatever one wants. Especially with the recent upsurge in social media, the pressure to believe in a fixed set of ideas has increased, leaving many people in doubt.

Only with God can freedom be used unerringly, which is why it is imperative that we make ourselves immune to the temptations around us.

Here’s the song:

Here are the lyrics. 

I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall away 
I disguise
And I will lie
And I will take my precious time
As the days melt away
As I stand in line
And I die as I wait as I wait on my crime
And I’ll try to delay what you make of my life
But I don’t want your way,
I want mine
I’m dying and I’m trying
But believe me I’m fine
But I’m lying,
I’m so very far from fine And I, I can feel the pull begin
Feel my conscience wearing thin
And my skin
It will start to break up and fall apartI don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall awayEvery time I feel selfish ambition
Is taking my vision
And my crime is my sentence
Repentance is taking commission
It’s taking a toll
On my soul
I’m screaming submission and,
I don’t know if I am dying or living
‘Cause I will save face
For name’s sake
Abuse grace
Take aim to obtain a new name
And a newer place
But my name is lame
I can’t walk and I ain’t the same
And my name became
A new destiny to the graveAnd I, I can feel the pull begin
Feel my conscience wearing thin
And my skin,
It will start to break up and fall apart
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I don’t wanna fall, fall away
I’ll keep the lights on in this place
‘Cause I don’t wanna fall, fall away

Mashley, slanderer, tektōn

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Maria and Ashley with…

[re-post from March 2016]

None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when—like the artists of every age—captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colors and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you. — St. John Paul II

Today I am thrilled to feature my daughter Maria’s writing, with her gracious if blushing permission. But that’s not all! I also get debut the writing of her dear friend and co-vocalist, Ashley. Yes, of the famed Ashley and Maria. 

Maria’s poem was written as part of her English class’ unit on poetry. She asked me to read it and then tell her what I thought it was about. I read it quietly. As I read it slowly through, I was delighted by the artfulness of her language and her ability to beautifully structure the meter and rhyme. But when I got to the last line, I exploded out a “WHAT??” and then drained my hyperbolic word bank dry while I lay prone on the carpet. Here it is:

There for my compulsions of cathartic release
A vacuum for my thoughts ‘til my mind is at peace

The greatest of listeners, absorbing every thought
Unfailingly present whenever you’re sought

Upon your exemplary performance, my success is dependent
With you in my grasp, my thoughts grow transcendent

Transporting me to where my mind is seldom sedentary
I yield to your craft, O slanderer of the ordinary

I immediately knew the moment I lifted that last line from the paper, through my eyes and into my mind, that she was describing the very pen she had employed to slander in this poem! I added to my explosive WHAT??, “Are you kidding me? Majestic! Outrageous! Stupendous! What is this? How did you think of that?”

She smiled.

Then, just when I thought I was safe from any more unsettling provocations, Maria passed on to me Ashley’s poem. Who are these 16 year olds? Where do they come? After having Maria admonish all pen-wielders to slander the ordinary, Ashley the tektōn indulged me in her slandering fest, consecrating raw empirical data into a sacrament of beauty. That’s how it felt! Ashley’s poem is a protest against modernity’s insular vision, against its atrophied imagination, healing her generation’s neurotic fear of punching upward-opening holes in our synthetic ceilings for fear they might reveal God’s downward gaze.

Those eyes! What hue? Azure? Indigo? Turquoise? Zaffre?

As I read “On the Lake,” I was transported into Ashley’s world, drawn through her eyes to envision a landscape of colors I had never seen myself. I even tasted her colors: bitter sweet! And I could hear her heart singing praises to the FarNear God in words that carved new depth into those canyon crags, only to leap up again with joy into the skies.

Let me allow her to speak:

On the Lake// 
I want to paint a picture of it, but no painting could do justice to its surreality.
Rusty-colored rock walls, built towards the sky, seemingly endless.
The ground not solid, but a crystal clear lake of blues —
The kind of blues that can only match the color of God’s eyes.
For even the blind man could recognize an aesthetic realm such as this.
The canyon could dizzy and perplex even the most intellectually gifted of men.
It has the kind of beauty I begin to develop a deep nostalgia for even before I arrive, as I
know how I will miss the grace of the natural atmosphere.
It is the closest place to heaven on earth, like a mirror parallel to the blue of the sky-
The reflection of the bitter-sweet color strays before it hits the rock.
It is the land of Aphrodite and Venus, where they sang and danced and laughed.
It is easy to feel free in the midst of the red rock, the same rock that shifts and transforms
and never looks the same, but always maintains its allure.
A land so dry and barren, yet still, I have never felt more tied to the earth, with all its
humbleness and peace and magnificence.
The sun kissed my shoulders, my skin now the same shade of red as the rock walls.
But I didn’t care. How could I? How could I possibly care about anything besides taking in
every inch of the canyon walls? How could I think of anything so extraneous when
surrounded by this insurmountable beauty?
I must let this earth consume me completely,
For in just a few days, I will desperately dream to be on the lake again.

+++

Here’s what I wrote later in my journal:

That’s the true vocation of a writer, isn’t it? To make the familiar strange and the strange familiar; the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary? Maria’s, Ashley’s love of language, and their firm grasp on its potential for beauty, bleeds through the pen. Their voices are inflected with faith, intoning the forgotten power of language to reveal, by a surprising refraction, countless concealed beauties. Language rightly used is the rainbow-sign of God’s enduring true love.

Faith! I’m absolutely convinced that an imagination captured by faith, hope, love, breathed into us by Christ the Tektōn [artisan], creates a capacious imagination. Faith, i.e. to think in Him who is the Word, the Origin of all beginnings, the Goal of all strivings, the restless resolve of all opposites, the Unity that preserves all difference. He gives to the mind its fullest “breadth and length and height and depth” (Ephesians 3:18)!

He is the Most High slanderer of the ordinary, the Writing God who has chosen US to be, and do, His calligraphy. We are the Scribes of the Wild Kingdom (Matt. 11:12; 13:52), word-smiths who render the mundane, celestial; the stable, an earthquake.

Writers discover, recover, uncover the uncommon in the common, mine infinite ore hiding within a flat wasteland, reveal the surplus of meaning lying latent in every empty space.

I also thought, after reading Maria and Ashley’s work, about the word tektōn, which is used in Mark 6:3 to describe Jesus’ profession. It’s usually translated “carpenter,” but is so much broader. A Greek lexicon says it includes “a worker in wood, a carpenter, joiner, builder, any craftsman, or workman, the art of poetry, maker of songs, a planner, contriver, plotter, an author.” Fabulous! God is a tektōn, all of these things, so of course Christ was also a tektōn. Brilliant!

I thought of the Catechism #2501 “Indeed, art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches. Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man’s own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing.”

Real Love and a New Miriam

“Miriam Dancing,” Carlo Maratti, 1710.

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[I accidentally posted this yesterday. Now is the acceptable time.]

“You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.” ― William W. Purkey

“Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister,
took a tambourine in her hand;
and all the women went out after her
with tambourines and with dancing.” – Ex. 15:20

Obviously I love to write about my marriage and family on NealObstat, and I am exceedingly grateful for people’s indulgence of this penchant of mine.

For those who read my blog post on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord this year, they will remember the audio clip I shared of my wife, Patti, and Cornelius “CC” Celestine together singing the spiritual, Wade in the Water. Well, Friday night, CC invited Patti and me to see him perform with his Motown singing group, Real Love, at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club in New Orleans. Four hours of electric energy rushing through the 50 or so patrons there to hear the performance. Most of the music was from the 60’s and 70’s, which we both love. But when they played Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk, Patti jumped to her feet and cut a rug.

As I talk often about Patti’s dancing, I decided to catch her on film so I could share with you exactly what it is I’m talking about. Sadly, my phone recording does a terrible injustice to the music, and it’s a bit dark, but good enough to offer you a glimpse. Best part was she had no clue I was filming.

CC is the singer at the middle microphone.

Lake Ella Sky

“When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” — Ansel Adams

Another self-indulgent photo album from the 3 days Patti and I spent in Tallahassee, Florida during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. Tallahassee is our spiritual home: found our faith there, met there, married there, had all our children there, made lifelong friendships there. The photos capture sights that caught my fancy. Each had a specific meaning to me that I’ve tried to distill in these brief captions. And I’ll end by treating you to the wildly gifted Colleen Nixon’s playful song about our beloved Tallahassee! For those so disposed, enjoy…

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“Crux.” This is the crux of a cross made by a dear friend of mine. It’s gorgeous. If the Cross is a symbol of God’s love for the world, this cross is a symbol of my friend’s love for God.

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The stream where my sons and I would spend hours catching small fish, tadpoles and building dams made from stones and logs. This must be There (Rev. 22:1)

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And great grammar!

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Lake Ella, where Patti and I spent hours and hours walking and talking. She would even let me practice my first lectures with her as we walked.

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The games I would play with a friend at Black Dog Cafe, as we spoke about Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev

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Realized eschatology. My dear friend Peter Bond, Regina Cigars, Abita Amber and Momo’s pizza. Maranatha.

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Pete Bond’s own “Jerry’s Cigar Shop & Ashton Lounge”. Come on, man, can’t you have this in New Orleans?

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The Live Oak tree our children loved to climb when they wanted to climb trees. Also There (Rev. 22:2)

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Graffiti: man’s irrepressible need to deface

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Firing range at our friends’ house.

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“You make wine to cheer man’s heart” (cf Psalm 104:15)

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My daughter, Catherine just before her Freshman dance. Where’s the stop button?

LA LA LAND

[written this past Monday immediately after leaving the theatre]

I just went to see the musical-movie, La La Land. Not being a big romance movie fan, based on the preview I had seen I would never have chosen to go had my wife, daughter and a guy friend all said to me very insistently: YOU MUST SEE THIS. I went and I am so grateful I went.

I’m not an art critic, but a theologian, which could make this a bit of an odd take. With that warning in mind, a few meandering thoughts…

It’s a movie about dreams, love, art, passion, imagination, success, failure, heartbreak, choice, destiny and so much more. It touched something very deep in me, as all great art should, and helped me see parts of my own life story with fresh eyes. Drama, if done well, should unveil the world anew; stretch your horizons; fill your palette with more colors with which to see and paint the world. In fact, I think I remember St. Catherine of Genoa referring to a vision of Paradise she had which, she said, revealed to her colors she had never seen before. The hard thing about that is you can’t describe them, because they don’t exist in human experience. This movie gave me some new colors that illumined parts of my life I had not been able to see beauty in before. My wife said to me before I saw it, “It shouldn’t have worked, but it did.” Seemed enigmatic until I saw it, and now I get it.

After it was over, I sat– or rather, hid! — and cried for quite a time. I am not a crier. The tears did not flow from being touched by this or that sentimental scene. Rather, tears came because I saw something unexpected and received an insight into life I was unprepared for. What? Something like: I saw splendor in my very ordinary life. I saw providence afresh in my personal story. I sensed a strange hope in my dashed dreams and my darkest failures. Though the movie contained no explicitly religious themes, it revealed to me the surprises that spring from divine providence. But this was more like an intuition than a clear concept, like the invisible light of the sun which only shows its spectrum when it strikes concrete objects; that can only be appreciated in reflection (or refraction!).

Thank you, God, for the gift of art.

Obviously I really recommend seeing it.

Slight spoiler:

Among my favorite scenes was when Mia auditioned for a role in a movie set in Paris. She’s asked to make up a story on the spot. She tells of an Aunt who seems to have inspired Mia’s own artistic vocation. This woman was a free spirit with an artist’s soul who lived both triumph and tragedy. Her greatness, to Mia, was in choosing to live not merely admiring the beauty in life at a safe and calculating distance, but risking the embrace her “mission” to experience and bring beauty, with all its terror and wonder, into the world. Only those who have taken this risk, who have drunk deeply of reality and lived to tell of it, can recite so eloquently of its majesty. St. John Paul II says as much:

What artists manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendor which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit.

Okay, here’s Mia’s audition song (text and song), The Fools Who Dream:

My aunt used to live in Paris
I remember, she used to come home and tell us
stories about being abroad and
I remember that she told us she jumped in the river once,
Barefoot

She smiled,
Leapt, without looking
And She tumbled into the Seine!
The water was freezing
she spent a month sneezing
but said she would do it, again

Here’s to the ones
who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts
that ache
Here’s to the mess
we make

She captured a feeling
Sky with no ceiling
Sunset inside a frame
She lived in her liquor
and died with a flicker
I’ll always remember the flame

Here’s to the ones
who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts
that ache
Here’s to the mess
we make

She told me:
A bit of madness is key
to give us new colors to see
Who knows where it will lead us?

And that’s why they need us,
So bring on the rebels
The ripples from pebbles
The painters, and poets, and plays

And here’s to the fools
who dream
Crazy, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

I trace it all back,
to that
Her, and the snow, and the Seine
Smiling through it
She said
She’d do it, Again